• How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith *** (of 4)

    Clint Smith educates white Americans who likely never learned the true extent and depth of slavery in the foundation and enduring legacy of the country. He does so, however, with poetic passages rather than a two-by-four across the side of your head. He applies the same gentle approach as he makes clear that never in America’s history – today included – has a Black person ever felt complete freedom. Skin color defines every interaction on the street, in a store, at a bank, during an interview, or in front of a jury. Consider for even sixty seconds, the strain that must induce.

    Using the same understated approach, while visiting seven important landmarks in the history of enslavement, Smith establishes that there never was, nor could have been, such a thing as acceptable or benevolent enslavement of other human beings, despite numerous enduring attempts to suggest otherwise. If enslavement as it was practiced in America cannot be justified by any rational or compassionate human, how, asks Smith can any veneration of The Lost Cause, Confederate Soldiers (and their reenactors), so-called defense of state’s rights, or idolization of Confederate leaders be tolerated? Wasn’t every Confederate, in essence, a subversive fighting to overthrow the rule of law. Wasn’t the Civil War fundamentally an armed insurrection in defense of the right to hold other human beings in conditions to which they could be flogged, starved, detached from their families, or worked to death?

    At his best, Smith interviews white tour guides at Monticello (working to teach anti-Racist history) and white Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy and does so without malice or confrontation, an act of noble restraint. He reminds each person he speaks with, however, what it has meant to him to grow up in a country that has never taught him, or itself, about its true history.

  • Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe ** (of 4)

    Keefe is the author of a couple of other books I thought were terrific (Empire of Pain, Say Nothing), but not this one. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Rogues is a collection of his previously published, long form essays bound together. Chapter after chapter we meet bad guys – white-collar crooks, narcos, fraudsters, arms merchants, and so on. Taken alone, each malcontent is pretty interesting, but Keefe starts each story letting you know at the outset what terrible deeds have been perpetrated. That doesn’t leave a lot of mystery while you plow through scores of pages to learn more, and more, about the same detail you were made aware of in the opening paragraphs. By the time you’ve read five or six of these stories, each one of which running out of steam about three-fourths through, you might wonder to yourself how many more bad guys you need to need to meet at one time.

  • River of the Gods by Candace Millard **** (of 4)

    By the 1860s California had absorbed an influx of hundreds of thousands of gold miners, the southern states of the U.S. had seceded, and North America’s native populations were mostly subdued, and yet in those years the only parts of the African continent known to western Europeans was its long perimeter. Ninety percent of Africa’s interior was unreliably mapped by whites. River of the Gods describes British expeditions to locate the source of the Nile River.

    An expedition into Africa’s interior required a combination of hubris, fearlessness, undaunted courage, and an unquestioning belief in racial superiority that is mortifying to behold. Without ever becoming overbearing, Millard’s description of the men, British and African, who risked their lives in search of the Nile’s origins, pits innate curiosity and urge for exploration — who doesn’t want to know the headwaters of the world’s longest river? — against the sheer audacity of believing that exploration can only be achieved by khaki-clad Britishers in charge of scores of largely nameless local guides, porters, and pack animals. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke hiked for months at a time, enduring, no exaggeration, more than 20 diseases and fevers which left them periodically blind, paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and crazed for weeks and months on end. Yet they marched forward, sometimes born on litters, often to the complete detriment of their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

    Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Credit.

    River of the Gods is part adventure tale, part biography of key explorers, and a rendering of an age of recognition, that colonialism, though not yet finished, was nearing its climax. Africa’s interior was about to be overrun by European countries whose competition with one another would expand from the purchase of bonded human chattel to the exploitation of timber, minerals, and colonial boundaries. It is a marvelous book that can cover the intricacies of Richard Burton’s courtship with his wife, the swarming insects of Africa’s jungles, and the international race for hegemony.

  • To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron *** (of 4)

    Mount Kailash in Tibet is a mountain revered and sanctified by Hindus and Muslims. Walking around its base cleanses the soul and brings respect and understanding to our dead ancestors. The mountain is reached from Nepal into Tibet, but is now monitored by China, intent upon Sino-fying the ancient kingdom of Tibet. Colin Thubron is one of Great Britain’s preeminent travel writers, barely a hare’s breadth away from nineteenth century British explorers, bedecked in pith helmets and khaki shorts, who preceded him.

    Thubron, already in his 70s, made his own pilgrimage immediately following the death of his mother, his last remaining relative and does so bathed in introspection. He pays exquisite attention to details noting interesting stones along a path made nearly entirely of stones. He shows us prayer flags worth looking at, discarded flashlights, exhausted acolytes crawling their way toward Nirvana, icy torrents, and armed Chinese soldiers anxiously hunting for protestors. He takes notes by the light of yak-butter lanterns and provides enough religious, spiritual, and political history to inform without overwhelming. He hikes to 18,000 feet in elevation meditating on his mother, who, like him, at the end, was gasping for oxygen, and his long-lost sister buried by an avalanche at the age of 21. Thubron’s adjectives cut like razors to the heart of every description. His account on life, death, and walking should be taken one step at a time, with concentration.

  • Between Genius and Genocide by Dan Charles *** (of 4)

    Fritz Haber may be the most important forgotten man in history. He is responsible for saving more lives than any other human being and, at the same time, can be blamed for some of the most concentrated killing ever perpetrated by a single person. First, the good news. Prior to Fritz Haber’s discovery of how to transform inert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer, the only way to nourish crop plants was with manure: from animals or people. Or by burning and plowing forests and grasslands into submission. By the beginning of the 1900s nearly all of the earth’s arable land had already succumbed to the plow and the production of manure was never going to be able to keep pace.

    When Haber created a process for making nitrogen fertilizer from air (and a ton of energy) he released humanity from a perpetual cycle of famine. Without exaggeration it is estimated that 40% of the population of the world today (more than 3 billion of us) eats on a regular basis because of nitrogen fertilizer. Of course, there are numerous downsides affiliated with nitrogen fertilizer, including the additional demands of a global population that has quadrupled since Haber’s 1913 invention.

    Haber is also infamous for the invention of chlorine gas first used by Germany’s military to slaughter French troops in World War I. The pain, terror, and death inflicted by chlorine, then phosgene, and finally mustard gas were never before experienced, and was so awful that they have been used rarely ever since.

    Dan Charles does an outstanding job of laying out the man, the science, and the context for Fritz Haber and makes us wonder if he was a genius or genocidal maniac? Was Haber inhumane for using chemical weapons first or no different in his methods of killing than the first person to kill from a distance using a bow and arrow, a bullet, a laser-guided missile, or a drone operated by a soldier half a world away?

  • Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)

    As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the photographer Edward Curtis took it upon himself to photo-document and record ethnographic information on every Indian tribe left in America. Pause for a minute and consider the audacity of the undertaking. At a time when the majority of white Americans still considered that only dead Indians were worth celebrating, Curtis not only took up a morally opposing perspective, but was determined to meet and speak with any indigenous tribe with enough function left to be whole and visitable.

    In what would ultimately amount to a 20-year project to produce the 20 volumes of The American Indian, Curtis took 40,000 images of more than 80 tribes.

    Photographs made during the early days of photography, while staged, remain some of the most iconic and artistic of any people in any era.

    His subjects transmit history, pathos, despair, and pride directly into the camera.

    Writing a book about the visual arts is no small feat and yet, Egan, a multiple-award winning author, succeeds in telling the life story of Curtis, the obsessed photographer, and the nadir of Indian life in America. Curtis was so obsessed with the need to document The American Indian he forfeited his marriage, his home, and his income. America, however, and its Indians owe debts of gratitude to Curtis for his fortitude and to Egan for so elegantly drawing him to our attention.

  • The Queen by Josh Levin ** (of 4)

    In principle, the story of Linda Taylor, the woman stuck with the appellation of America’s Welfare Queen, upon whom so much political scorn has been laid is worthy of a solid retelling. She is reviled by all working class taxpayers for her rampant and rambunctious fleecing of America’s welfare systems. Ronald Reagan made her infamous as he campaigned for President, mentioning the Welfare Queen as representative of all that was wrong with government in America. Linda Taylor had amassed scores of aliases, ID cards, addresses, social security numbers, and heartbreaking sob stories in pursuit of tens of thousands of dollars and Reagan repeated that description every chance he got.

    Buried beneath Reagan’s rhetoric, but not very deeply, was the implication that People of Color were primarily, and as a group, collectively, foregoing work in favor of taking free money supplied by lower-class, hard-working, white Americans. Reagan relied upon racism in place of either research or data. It worked then and continues to work now.

    Complicating the story still further was Linda Taylor’s background story as the child of mixed-race parentage in the South where miscegenation was illegal and the product of such a relationship was to be shunned at all costs. The Supreme Court did not strike down laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to marry until 1967 and many southern states sill support the rights of businesses and churches to deny services to mixed-race couples. In some ways, becoming a con-woman was a smart business move on Taylor’s part and she succeeded to such a degree that she seems to have lost all touch with reality or the truth, shifting stories about who she was or what she was up to on the turn of a dime. As a world-class con-artist without regard for veracity she reminds me of a very recent president.

    The Queen is meticulously researched. Every crime on Taylor’s long list is evaluated in full detail and therein lies the downfall of the book. It is gruelingly detailed.

  • The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr **** (of 4)

    At some level all of us who shop for food know that canned tomatoes don’t really grow in cans and that frozen shrimp don’t really come from the freezer. What Benjamin Lorr does so engrossingly well is write about the people who make the system run. He speaks with Burmese shrimpers enslaved by Thai boatmen — seriously enslaved in every sense of the word. He rides with truckers who move every item we own in our homes — try to think of an item that has not been transported by truck — and discovers an industry where nearly every driver is simultaneously on the verge of incipient bankruptcy and utterly replaceable.

    He meets brokers driven to amass new products (check out the cereal aisle to see what is new this week) and interviews entrepreneurs convinced they have the next best thing since the invention of Sriracha. Lorr explains why Fair Trade, and other certifications, are primarily designed to drive sales (to self-aggrandizing shoppers like me), but might not make much difference to growers or to the planet.

    Floor-workers in supermarkets from WalMart to Whole Foods are all subject to unpredictable hours (so no childcare planning and no second jobs) and held to just under the number of hours needed to receive benefits.

    What every hidden stage of the commodity chain has in common with the next link is the capitalistic insistence upon unlimited abundance at the lowest possible price. It all appears as tens of thousands of distinct products whose glaring availability is only possible if we treat the people who make and deliver them as interchangeable, standardized machine parts.

    No one does it more effectively than Amazon (now owner of Whole Foods). The company places haptic monitors on the bodies of its workers to ensure efficiency of motion and penalize wasted efforts, like a pause to scratch an itch.

  • Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos **** (of 4)

    Journalism is a first attempt to record history, and Osnos makes an outstanding first pass over the period in America between September 11, 2001 and January 6, 2021. On the first date, the country was (mostly) united in its horror by an attack by a foreign intruder. Twenty years later and the U.S. is riven. Wisely, Osnos uses only three locations in America to track the transformation: a small, de-industrializing town in West Virginia, the Black south side of Chicago, and Greenwich, CT, the wealthiest community in the country.

    Osnos lays blame for the disintegration of the country on income inequality and the undue influence that super-wealthy and corporations have on the electoral process. In short, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich, richer. In West Virginia, poor, aging white Americans whose jobs in the coal mines have disappeared along with their health benefits have absorbed right wing xenophobia and cast themselves as losers in a race war. Wealthy money managers in Greenwich tolerate Trumpism because their ability to continue to live the life of ease gets only easier. And, they never interact with poor Americans. Similarly, many of the Black residents of Chicago that Osnos speaks with have never been to white Chicago. They have not seen the museums, the zoo, parks or the waterfront. They do not get there as tourists, as members of the electoral process, and definitely not as workers.

    Trump figures prominently in the final years — and it is sadly amazing how much deeply racist and hurtful policies and statements he perpetrated that I had blocked from memory — but Osnos paints Trump as a skillful opportunist in the right place at the right time. In time, historians will have a clearer picture, but Osnos has captured an era with superb readability.

  • The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.